Is the UK’s National Grid Ready for the Future?

The Eco Experts

The UK, along with many other countries, is seeing its energy landscape rapidly transformed by new energy sources, such as renewables.

It’s also seeing a constant increase in the number of people needing energy, which prompts the question: is the UK’s National Grid ready for the future?

National Grid pylons against a sunset

What is the National Grid?

The National Grid is the company that manages much of the UK’s energy supply, covering England, Wales, and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland. They see to it that every home within these regions receives gas and electricity, which are managed by a complex network of high-voltage power lines, gas pipes, interconnectors, and storage facilities.

From this network, distribution companies (called Distribution Network Operators) provide electricity and gas to homes and businesses across the UK. Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) are what we’d call energy suppliers.

Who your energy supplier is depends on where you live, with different suppliers present in the three regions covered.

 

Is the National Grid big enough today?

Right now, the changing energy landscape of Britain has not yet reached a scale large enough to cause the grid to really struggle. If we take the words of Graeme Cooper, the National Grid’s Transport Decarbonisation Director to be true, then “the grid can cope easily” (December 2020).

However, he also made it clear that significant funding is needed to make sure the grid can cope with the predicted increases in demand.

Of the 29 million homes in the UK, it’s estimated that only around 75000-100,000 homes aren’t connected to the electricity grid. Roughly 21 million rely on mains gas, with approximately 4 million of these homes not connected to the gas grid.

This is usually down to them being in more rural locations and they often have to rely on expensive fuel alternatives. These include LPG gas, or using electricity to heat their home, both of which are more expensive than mains gas.

It’s quite tricky trying to predict how many homes we expect to see by 2050, but we can use previous years to try. House building in the UK has ramped up in recent years, with the obvious exception being the COVID-19 pandemic. Ignoring that though, new homes being built in the UK climbed to 173,000 in 2019, the highest number of new homes built in 11 years.

If we assume 173,000 as an average number of homes built per year, we can estimate that by 2050 a further 4,844,000 homes will have been built. That’s a lot for the grid to account for, and this is just napkin math!

Some organisations say that the UK still isn’t building enough homes to accommodate those that need them. By the mid 2020s, the UK government has said they hope to be building 300,000 homes a year. The National Federation of Housing says the UK needs to build 340,000 homes, every year, until at least 2031.

Is the National Grid ready for the future?

As more renewable energy is added to the mix of available energy sources, the grid needs to make sure it can continue to work. The increase in electric vehicles (EVs) has to be accounted for too, with massive jumps in the numbers of EV owners in the UK. In 2015, just 1.1% of new car registrations were electric – by the end of 2019, this had jumped to 10.7%.

If predictions about the number of EVs on UK roads come to pass, by 2030 we can expect to see around 4.8 million EVs, making up 31.5% of all vehicles. By 2050, the number of EVs in the UK will require between 60-100TWh (terawatt hours) from the grid to charge.

The growing population certainly can’t be forgotten. It’s expected that by 2050, the UK will be home to nearly 74 million people, most of which will want to be connected to mains electricity and gas.

So is the grid ready for the future? It’s complicated – right now the major fear is how the grid will operate with the shift away from coal and gas power stations. The reason for this is that the grid wasn’t built with renewables in mind, and this is a problem for how it will deliver power in the future.

Basically, coal and gas power plants generate electricity at a constant rate. When the grid experiences an increase in demand, all you have to do is burn more coal or gas to guarantee enough power to meet this demand.

Renewable energy is a different story. Solar energy is only present during the day and wind turbines cannot operate effectively when the wind isn’t blowing.

This creates a potential problem between demand and supply. Imagine everyone going back home at the same time, on a hot day, and all deciding to turn on their air conditioning. Normally, the grid would compensate by having power stations burn more fuel (and chucking out increased carbon emissions as a result).

With renewables, this guarantee of increased power isn’t there. What happens then? Power cuts, because the only way to manage a surge in demand without the supply to meet it, is to limit the electricity.

See, the grid relies on balance, in that there must always either be enough power to meet energy demand, or restrictions (power cuts) to reduce strain on the system.

 

Why is the National Grid not bigger?

Since its inception in 1935, the grid has continued to expand to meet the ever-increasing demands of a growing population. Back then, the National Grid managed a measly 132kWh (kilowatt hours) – now, the grid can quite comfortably provide 25tWh (terawatt hours), enough to power 25 billion washing machine cycles (just a quick aside on these numbers; a single terawatt Hour is equal to one billion kilowatt hours).

The grid is expanding to this day still, but not necessarily in the ways you might think.

The UK is committed to its net-zero ambitions and this involves reducing emissions in any way they can. This includes the future infrastructure for the National Grid, which would produce huge amounts of emissions if it were to be built. Large amounts of land would be needed for the infrastructure too.

National Grid UK pylons

What is the solution?

To get around this, the grid has started implementing ‘power flow control’ technology, which is a world first. In layman’s terms, power flow control allows the grid to better manage bottlenecks caused by too much renewable energy.

If one substation (an essential part of a power grid) on the grid has too much power to handle, the power flow control can shift the excess to other substations, reducing the amount of energy wasted.

Using these power flow controls will add hundreds of megawatts, power hundreds of thousands of homes, all without actually having to build more substations.

 

What other solutions are there?

Other solutions include the building of massive battery stations, which store energy generated from renewable sources to be used when they aren’t generating electricity.

These are few and far between right now however, but plans are in place to expand the UK’s battery stations to meet the increase of renewable energy sources on the grid.

How does the National Grid compare to other countries in Europe?

Many countries in Europe are facing the same issues when it comes to readying their grids for the future. Case in point, Germany, who find themselves in a position where the renewable energy they generate cannot be managed by their power grid.

Germany’s massive wind farms in the north of the country make for pleasant reading if we only look at power generated. However, all this counts for little if the power generated doesn’t actually end up in people’s homes.

Such is the amount of excess power that some people in Germany are effectively being paid to use excess energy, otherwise known as negative wholesale electricity.

It gets worse for Europe when you factor in gas. We’ve already seen the impact on Europe’s gas supply from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine tensions, and despite calls to stop Europe’s reliance on Russian exports, gas remains integral to the continent.

Therein lies the major problem – Europe’s grid can’t deal with the increase in renewable energy, so green technology such as heat pumps would need to be powered using electricity generated by fossil fuels. But if gas either becomes too expensive, or there isn’t enough of it, countries in Europe would have to turn to coal (despite decarbonisation efforts).

 

Summary

Despite fears of the National Grid being unable to cope, it does at least seem like the UK has a plan in place. What remains to be seen is whether the introduction of new technologies will be enough, because there are still some experts who believe that the grid will struggle in the future. Especially as more people buy electric cars and home heating moves from gas, oil, and other fossil fuels, to electricity.

Tom Gill Writer

Tom is a big fan of all things eco and has a passionate interest in how technology and localised projects can work together to make the world greener.

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